Forum: US not the proper venue for summit with Asean

Asean signs and Asean member national flags are displayed outside IMPACT Muang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, on October 30, 2019.
Asean signs and Asean member national flags are displayed outside IMPACT Muang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi province, Thailand, on October 30, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Asean is up against another big test as it ponders if it should, or shouldn't, accept US President Donald Trump's invitation to Washington for a summit next year (Most Asean leaders skip summit with US, Nov 5).

The invitation came after Mr Trump's continuing absence at the East Asia Summit (EAS); President Barack Obama, in comparison, never missed it. To add insult to injury, the most senior American representative sent this year was Mr Trump's Secretary of Commerce.

Despite being snubbed by the United States, Asean did not wallow in self-pity but reciprocated in no less visible terms by sending its lower-ranked officials to the US-Asean Summit (with the exception of the current, incoming and coordinating chairs who dispatched their prime ministers).

Asean ought to politely decline Mr Trump's invitation because attendance will bring forth repercussions in more ways than one; not the least of which is perception of Asean's centrality. And perception matters a great deal in international relations.

What message will we be sending to the world if instead of having others journey to South-east Asia to discuss matters central to the region, the US becomes the gathering point for Asean heads? We would be seen as no more than subordinates, summoned to the CEO's office.

Second, this could be America's bait at making the grouping pick a side. Asean showing up at Washington sends the message: "Okay, we pick you."

Asean must never forget its motto of maintaining an inclusive regional architecture.

By slipping into the back room for exclusive talks with the US to the omission of other EAS attendees, it will erode the latter's trust in whether Asean means what it says and says what it means - because there is lucidly nothing inclusive about exclusivity. Asean's values and success are built upon a model of open, multilateral cooperation. It must, therefore, exemplify its values by rejecting any formats that counter such.

By forging ahead with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, regardless of America's withdrawal and India's refusal, Asean has gained respect as a tough force that will keep going even when the going gets tough.

This time, it must build on this respect by responding to the US with a resounding "No, thank you", and sit tight at the driver's seat for its Indo-Pacific vision and strategy.

Lily Ong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2019, with the headline 'US not the proper venue for summit with Asean'. Print Edition | Subscribe